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People Talk: Attorney Steven M. Cohen battles on after rare paralysis

Steven M. Cohen came from Queens in the mid-1980s to study law at the University at Buffalo. He ended up staying – in part – because of the area’s hassle-free traffic patterns. The chaotic commute in New York City riled him, he said. It made him feel like he wanted to fight. Many who have watched Cohen roar in the courtroom may not find that so surprising.

He made his mark trying civil rights and constitutional law cases. Some of his clients are mentally ill, highly medicated and in custody. Some – like Lynn DeJac, who spent 13 years in prison for a crime she did not commit – are well known. Many are cops.

At age 53, Cohen has spent much of his life searching for the perfect coffee mug, much to the concern of his wife, Pam. They live in Clarence with their two sons. Cohen, who recently suffered a rare neurological disorder, is a certified Reiki level II practitioner. His hobby is wilderness survival.

People Talk: You’re a big guy. How does that work for you in the courtroom?

Cohen: It’s a combination of my voice and size. I have a deep, booming voice in the courtroom when necessary. I use it as a prop. It terrifies people, even those used to being in charge. I also make sure that every officer who comes in is disarmed. I get a court ruling. It’s about making the officers feel vulnerable, that they are as subject to the law as anyone else. By the time I get done with them, they know that.

PT: Were you bullied as a kid?

SC: No more than anyone else growing up in 1960s Queens. My mother was a social worker who worked with gangs. My father was a psychologist. They were big on civil rights and didn’t like discrimination. There was never a reason to pity someone in a wheelchair. There was a reason to find out what they could accomplish.

PT: You are the voice for the underdog.

SC: All the cases that are dripping with money, there are enough lawyers to represent. Clients with cases that don’t have big value, they’re not going to find someone to represent them, and they won’t have a voice when I’m gone. David Jay is dead. When he was dying, he told me: “Steven, you’ve got to keep this going.” I’ve tried. I’ve paid for internships at UB to get students interested in working with me. They seem to love it, and every one of them has gone into mergers and acquisitions, traditional litigation. I don’t have a Rolex. That’s what kids want now.

PT: How’s your health?

SC: In some respects, it’s better now than when I got sick. Last year, I was in the hospital from mid-July to mid-August. I was getting ready to go into the office on a weekend, and I felt a little weird. My speech was slurred. I hadn’t noticed, but my wife did. I was battling conjunctivitis, so my eyes were a little crossed. My wife ordered me into her car. She’s 5-foot-4. I’m 6 foot, and no match for her. She took me to the stroke center and saved my life. By the time I got to the hospital, I had trouble walking. They kept MRI-ing and CAT-scanning me.

Finally Dr. (Bianca) Weinstock-Guttman said: “Stop nuking this poor guy. It’s not a stroke. I think he has Miller-Fisher syndrome.” It’s a variant of Guillain-Barre that attacks the cranial nerves first. My hands didn’t feel like my own. My feet, too. I couldn’t swallow, so they kept suctioning. They catheterized me. That made it official. I was a patient. And then the doctor leans close and said: “Mr. Cohen, if my diagnosis is correct, chances are that within the next hour, you will lose the ability to breathe. You’re going to be completely paralyzed. I don’t think this is going to last forever.” They gave me immunoglobulin IV treatments for five days. My co-pays alone are up to $10,000. I never needed intubation.

PT: While you were paralyzed, could you hear?

SC: I could hear, breathe and blink. I was paralyzed for six days, and people from the firm would come in to visit me. “What a shame to lose Steve,” they’d say. “With him gone, who do you think will become the chairman of the department?” It was pretty funny. I couldn’t move. My eyes were closed. Dr. Nicholas Silvestri said 70 percent of my functionality would return. I’m at 70 now. It was a month before I could drink water.

PT: What caused this?

SC: It could be any infection – earaches, sinuses. If your body has it long enough, something snaps. I had conjunctivitis for like three months.

PT: What are you doing differently now?

SC: Dr. Sylvia Regalla hooked me up to electrodes and diagnosed me with things no one has ever talked about. I thought I was a thorough interrogator. I am nothing next to her. She looks at your body on a cellular level. I walk regularly. I go to the gym three times a week. I have a fitness trainer, Michele Ralabate. I had Reiki healings done on me, and I had people praying by my bedside. I promise you that was a big part of this. I had ministers, rabbis, imams all praying with me. I’ve been back in the courtroom since September, and jurors didn’t know I couldn’t lift my briefcase. When I was in the hospital, I lost 54 pounds. It’s back.

PT: Tell me about a job perc.

SC: The firm got a boat in February. The boat was actually a fee from a client, and it came to the firm. My boss was kind enough to say, “Look, Steve, you’ll pretty much be using the boat for yourself.” I represented a well-known drug dealer. To get the boat we needed court approval, since it was purchased with drug money. We called it Little Socks, and I finally bought a truck to haul it. Little Socks keeps me oriented as to what is important in life. In the pocket of my large overcoat, I have my son’s first baby sock. That’s my mojo.